My mother lost her words in stages. At one point, she may not have known the name of that thing that cleans the rug, or the other thing that rings, but she knew to refer to both the vacuum cleaner and the telephone as “the machine,” which made its own kind of sense.
She lost her ability to read just as my first novel, Minyan, was coming out, and concerning my next book, The 99th Monkey, all she could say was, “I don’t like the monkeys.” So books were a thing of the past, and before long even single paragraphs in a newspaper became too complex for her to track. Next individual sentences were incomprehensible. Finally all words disappeared, and were replaced by a nonsense language of her own creation.
My mother continued, and continues today, to talk to and engage with people in long conversations that sound something like this:
Mom: The minglemann is fritin nob-a-note?
Me: Yes, Mom, the minglemann is fritin nob-a-note.
Mom: You too?
Mom: Oh, well, the tishmish doesn’t know any grittleminers.
There is some sort of internal logic there that is just out of reach, so one’s mind, normally grasping at meaning, has to let go into another dimension, a non-linear form of communication. (A more fun one, actually.)
And then, one day, I had a revelation.
I observed my mother flipping through a magazine, and reading the big print aloud. In English. She can still read! I thought. I was floored. Then I recalled that she still counted the stairs as she climbed them. And also knew red from blue.
I ran out to Barnes & Noble to buy her an adult picture book aimed at people in her condition, and couldn't find even one. Ditto for Amazon and the Internet. While there are hundreds of books written for caregivers, it was astounding to me to discover that there are virtually none for the patient, given the millions of people afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer's. (I eventually discovered several books by Lydia Burdick that are great, though different from my idea. I ordered them for my mother and she read each one about 200 times!)
Given that my Mom couldn’t read either of my two earlier books, I realized it wasn’t too late to write one that she would able to read, and that’s how Blue Sky, White Clouds: A Book for Memory-Challenged Adults came to be. Just released this week, it is a simple picture book for people with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or other forms of memory-loss. Each page contains an exquisite photograph and a short caption in LARGE PRINT. There is no need to remember anything when turning the page. (To get the idea, you can view a three-page excerpt here.)
The book mimics what I observed in my Mom. She is so into the present moment, she would make Eckhart Tolle jealous! (He is the author of the best-selling book, The Power of Now.) If I am not directly in my mother’s line of vision, for example, I completely disappear from her present reality. When she turns her head a moment later and sees me, she is delighted and happy that I turned up. We have countless joyful reunions a day! (My brother, a psychologist, explained to me that this phenomenon is very similar to the “object permanence” skill that an infant has yet to acquire, thus making the game of peek-a-boo so effective. Similarly, each page of Blue Sky, White Clouds is a new moment, opens up a new world.)
I have a confession to make. I wound up blogging on these pages through a fortuitous meeting of my publisher of The 99th Monkey and the online editor at Psychology Today. ("Ya gotta know someone.") My publisher told me it would be a good way to gain exposure and ultimately sell more books; all I had to do was come up with some reasonably entertaining posts and slowly build an audience.
Since this was how I entered the world of blogging, I assumed that that was the case for all bloggers, that everybody you read here is likely to have a hidden agenda of self-promotion. And while that probably is true of many of us, it dawned on me today that there are actually writers who have a higher purpose for their work than merely the self-serving goal of furthering their career, their books and their name. You know the type I mean, those people who passionately believe whole-heartedly in some extremely worthy cause that helps and serves people in great need, and that is their primary motivation in life? Imagine that.
But perhaps it is not either/or. Perhaps it is possible to both self-promote and be of genuine service. In fact, if we have a product or service that will be truly useful and helpful to others, isn’t it in fact incumbent upon us to do what we can to let those people know about it?
I received an email from Belden Johnson recently, a friend, mentor, therapist and author of Real Relationship: Essential Tools to Help You Go the Distance. His email contained a newspaper interview with him about his book, and the subject line was: "What I won’t do to sell a book." I half-expected to read about him doing something crazy to promote his book, like standing naked on the freeway with a sandwich sign. But he was simply sharing the interview, and apologizing for sharing it in the same breath.
I wrote him back: "You don't need to apologize in the subject line for 'selling' your book. You're selling a book that serves people, so it's a win-win." He agreed.
So yes, I want to sell Blue Sky, White Clouds, and shout about it from the rooftops, and from the pages of Psychology Today, and yes, I do believe it will serve people in a very real way. If you know someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, I truly think they will enjoy sitting and reading this book together with you.
Many years ago I went to a medium who allegedly transmitted a message to me from William Blake, telling me that my writings would "one day reach millions." How ironic it would be if this is the book that fulfills his prognostication. Because after years of struggling as a writer and publishing numerous books and articles and blog posts, the most creative sentence I wrote for this one was, "The baby is fast asleep." Wouldn't it be poetic justice somehow if these are the writings that reach millions? After all my efforts at self-promotion, my audience might turn out to be millions of dementia patients who will never even know my name, or care! It would be the perfect example of the “Zen of Non-Self Promotion.”
Not to say that it wouldn’t help me enormously if several million of you purchased Blue Sky, White Clouds, because Dad is rapidly spending my inheritance on Mom's care, and my wife and I are about to move closer to them to help out, and lose our group health plan in the process, and I have no time to get a job, not to mention I hate working.
But on the non-self promotion side, I am confident that Blue Sky, White Clouds will provide many tender and wonderful moments of connection with your loved one, and provide an intimate way to spend time together and do something more interactive and meaningful than simply plopping them down in front of a television and hoping one of their extended naps kicks in.
Order Blue Sky White Clouds here. Thanks!
Next month we return to our regularly scheduled program...where I'm funny and entertaining.